“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” – Amendment X
Thomas Jefferson considered these words, the Tenth Amendment, to be “the foundation of the Constitution.” In reality, the Tenth Amendment is much more than that. It is nothing less than the foundation of the entire American experiment, based on the principles of the American Revolution.
When Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he wrote that the 13 American colonies were “absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” Contrary to popular belief, the erstwhile colonies were not declaring their independence because of new, radical notions, but because their historic right to self-government had been continually violated by the British Parliament with support from the king.
When the colonies seceded from Great Britain, they did not announce that they were forming a new country. The merely asserted that the colonies were now “free and independent states.” In today’s usage, a state typically refers to a subordinate political unit within a larger government, but at the time of the Declaration, the word state literally meant “nation.” Additionally, the term “congress” at that time signified a meeting of ambassadors from independent nations. So, when the colonies met “in Congress,” they were meeting as representatives of sovereign states.
The states continued to jealously guard their independence while writing and adopting the Articles of Confederation, officially uniting them politically. Article II of that document, coming second only to the article that officially named of the union, asserted that “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States.”
After their victory over the British, some believed that the government under the Articles was not sufficiently strong to handle the common business of the states. In order to address these perceived weaknesses, a convention of delegates from the states convened in May, 1787. As the task of revising the Articles quickly evolved into writing an entirely new governing document, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were challenged with giving the new government enough power to carry out a few, specific functions while maintaining the federal, decentralized nature of the union.
The enduring importance of state sovereignty was clearly communicated at the beginning of the Convention, when the delegates rejected the Virginia Plan, which would have created a powerful national government and reduced the power of the states. In rejecting this nationalist plan, the new states were attempting to ensure that they had not just fought off one oppressive central government only to institute another.
As the Convention progressed, the principle of self-government provided the framework for understanding the new governing document. When the Constitution was approved for recommendation to the states, its proponents went home to ensure their home states that their hard-won independence was not in danger. In one of the most famous addresses in favor of the Constitution, Pennsylvania’s James Wilson explained that every power “which is not given (to the federal government) is reserved (to the states).”
In Federalist 45 James Madison confirmed the continuing independence of the states, saying “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” The Constitution’s very nature, its proponents argued, was one of limited central power and the expansive autonomy of the state governments.
Despite these assurances, many of the Constitution’s opponents were unconvinced. James Lincoln, a delegate to South Carolina’s ratification convention, charged that the Constitution “changes, totally changes, the form of your present government.” Lincoln continued, “What have you been contending for these ten years past? Liberty! What is liberty? The power of governing yourselves.” Lincoln and his fellow opponents to the Constitution concluded that, in its unamended state, the document left too much room for the federal government to interfere with this historical right of the states.
The solution to this disagreement came from the ratification conventions of several states, which suggested the inclusion of amendments that would clearly delineate the restrictions on the federal government’s power. Massachusetts was the first state to recommend amendments and, as the right to self-government was the keystone of the American political tradition, an amendment protecting that right was placed first in its list of recommendations. The convention advised, “First, that it be explicitly declared that all Powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several States to be by them exercised.”
The conventions of New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia included similar language in their ratification documents. These were clearly not idle suggestions and it is highly doubtful that the Constitution would have been ratified in several of these states, including the influential state of Virginia, had this clarification of the states’ powers not been agreed upon.
The Constitution was ratified and went into effect in 1789 and the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was ratified in 1791. Within the Bill of Rights lay the Tenth Amendment, which officially codified into the new federal government the most essential historical feature of American politics, the right of unimpeded self-rule through state and local governments.
Through all of this history, the American people had been particularly distrustful of centralized power. Indeed, of all the problematic features of government, Americans viewed intrusions upon their right to self-government as the height of tyranny and the fiercest foe of liberty. As governments in the United States and around the world have become more centralized, the fears of our forefathers have been realized in increasingly terrible ways.
Today, our impulse is to address the problems created by centralized power by using the central power itself, an impulse that is a little like attempting to cure a snake bite by letting the snake bite you again. To recapture the liberties we once possessed we must understand, as our founders did, that the solutions to our current problems will not be found through nationalized power. The only task that centralized power effectively completes is the oppression of its people.
To move forward towards liberty we must look backward to the Tenth Amendment. In its institutional safeguards against centralized power is found the only true protection of our liberties.